Is Empathy Overrated?

Derek Beres’ blog titled The Case against Empathy argues that the value of empathy is exaggerated. In this response, I hope to resonate with Derek’s experience and attempt to understand how he arrived at his conclusions. I also hope to explore how his discussion presents a limited, in fact a distorted, concept of empathy.

Derek fears that too much feeling of another’s emotion will induce a self reflection on one’s own negative emotions. As he states in his blog, ”Instead of acting as a conduit for their friend to siphon their emotions through, it quickly becomes about the corresponding distress in the listener. Everyone dumps, no one cleans up the mess.” When I remember times that I have been overwhelmed by another’s and my own emotions I can certainly see why Derek experiences this as a negative situation. Of course Derek does not wish this state of affairs to exist, but what he describes is not empathy. Rather what he describes is emotional overwhelm.

Derek also attempts to make a distinction between cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. Emotional empathy, he says is “literally feeling what another is experiencing…” (italics in original). Cognitive empathy, according to Derek, is sympathizing with the other. While this may seem like a useful distinction to make, neither definition captures the essence of empathy.

Empathy is an opening to the experience of the other. Empathy is the ability to suspend judgment from an external perspective and accept the reality, emotional and cognitive, that the other perceives. According to Marshall Rosenberg, “Empathy, I would say is presence. Pure presence to what is alive in a person at this moment, bringing nothing in from the past.”

Can you remember a time when you were engaged in a deeply fascinating conversation – it may have lasted hours, but only felt like a short period of time elapsed. In the conversation, though it was profound, you may not remember who made what point, because there was not a separation of minds, but a unity. This is the experience of empathy – a connectedness, usually a slight excitement because these encounters are not frequent. And BOTH parties leave the encounter changed, more knowledgeable and more connected. The incident described in this paragraph is what Martin Buber calls the I-Thou encounter.

In the I-thou encounter, the “I” is not separate from the “Thou”. Both parties are changed by the encounter. In the encounter we ARE joined – I am not separating “my” emotions form the others, I am not judging or evaluating the other, I am party to and changed by encounter, but not overwhelmed. In the I-it experience the “I” is separate from the other (the it), thus the I can judge the it, notice the separateness and evaluate the external “it”.

What Buber describes in the I-Thou encounter is more like the empathy that I aspire to. The empathy that Derek describes, both emotional and cognitive is of an I-it nature. Emotionally if I understand “your” feelings I am relating to them as something separate from me. Thus I can evaluate them, or my feelings can be triggered by them. If I encounter you with your feelings and we share the same encounter there is nothing to trigger, we are simply in the same place.

I believe empathy to be worth aspiring to, but also recognize that empathy is rare, and requires suspending judgment, which is difficult to do. Perhaps Derek believes empathy is overrated because he believes it is a technique to be applied, rather than an encounter that is lived.

Though empathy is NOT a technique, it is possible to learn skills that will lead toward empathy. One of the best books available to help learn the skills is Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion by Marshall Rosenberg. As one learns the skills – one can develop deeper respect for another’s reality and reach toward genuine empathy.

Is empathy overrated? Hardly! Encountering another person in empathy is one of the most powerful occurrences available to human beings. Empathy will not solve all problems, but it does connect us with others. Only when we connect, when we share another’s perspective can we join the other in finding solutions that will fully honor their experience.

Michael Winters is a Psychologist in Houston focusing on marriage counseling and therapy. Michael received his PhD from the University of Memphis and has been practicing since 1991.